Tolstoy: A Russian Life, By Rosamund Bartlett

A man at war and peace with himself

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It's no surprise to learn that Rosamund Bartlett found the task of "making sense of a man who was truly larger than life" a daunting one.

She brings out the contradictory elements of his character: the man who clung to his "family pedigree" yet also identified with the peasant class and tried to improve their education; who was raised by independent women after the early deaths of his parents, but who insisted on trapping his wife at home; the youthful hell-raiser who became ascetic and monk-like in his old age.

Like Robert Burns, he was a man who consciously wanted to be his nation's "bard", as it were. Unlike Burns, he had a rival for the role in Dostoevsky. (The two writers never actually met.) Tolstoy was probably better suited temperamentally, given his tendency towards dogmatism and his dislike of compromise. When he married Sofia Andreyevna, she was 18 and he was 34. It was easy for him to dominate her, too, and she would become not just the mother to his 13 children (five would die young), but also his amanuensis.

I missed some of Tolstoy's own words here; I would have liked to hear more direct quotes from his letters and diaries. When he does speak, he conveys superbly that larger-than-life element ("I'm now a writer with all the power of my soul") that Bartlett struggles with. He is uncontainable, but perhaps she felt she had to try to contain him, nevertheless.